This needs wider recognition

If you know anything about American country and folk music, you know the name John Prine.

He’s famous for, among other things, penning the lyrics to his early song “Paradise,” which I always sing when traveling to the western part of the beautiful state of Kentucky and across the Green River —

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

You may not have heard this song, entitled “In Spite of Ourselves,” which he sings below with Iris DeMent. I hadn’t. As you’ll hear in Prine’s remarks, the song appears in the end-credits in the 2001 movie in which he co-starred with Billy Bob Thornton, Daddy & Them.

Fun fact about Mr. Prine: Along with Ed Wood, of “worst director in Hollywood” fame, he and I share the same birthday, October 10. Mark your calendars, now — and celebrate for a month of Sundays.

A guilty woman’s tour of New York

There are lots of ways to see New York. As a tourist, you go to the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and Central Park. If you’re an art lover, you head straight to the Metropolitan Museum and, especially if you like saying it out loud, MOMA.

If you’re me, you eat a lot, discover a whole lot of what you don’t know, and feel guilty about both.

Take this for example.

Wouldn't we all

Thanks a lot, David Barton Gym. This is supposed to be motivational, I know, and in a world where there are TV series featuring serial killers as heros and chemistry teachers making meth, I shouldn’t be surprised. The sign looks a bit strange because like a lot of New York buildings, it’s being renovated and the scaffolding protects passers-by. Who presumably have murder on their minds.

But of course, after a couple days taking huge, salt-and-butter laden bites out of the Big Apple, I was starting to think such ghoulish thoughts sounded good.

Visiting my sister Cara, chef of a darling restaurant, Cafe Ghia in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, means eating. A lot. She and our other sister, her twin Leah, are only 30 years old and ridiculously active. A few 1,000 calorie “starters” (what we in New York are now calling appetizers) sit lightly on their yoga-trimmed and cycle-pared thighs. Add 18 years and a lot of sitting around on your ass blogging, and such delights tend to drag down one’s derriere considerably.

So there’s that guilt trip: eat your way across New York and no matter how much walking up and down stairs to the subway you do, you still arrive back home in Kentucky with a newly minted double chin and a drawer full of jeans you can’t zip.

Chelsea HotelHere’s something else: The Hotel Chelsea. Heard of it? Maybe? Well, maybe I had too.

“It’s famous for something,” Leah allowed, as we walked past it to get to the Doughnut Plant next door. (Mmmm doughnuts. See above.)

“Well, it’s also closed,” I announced, seeing the sign on the door.

“Probably bedbugs,” was my mother’s Regis and Kelly-informed opinion.

Well, as it turns out, it too was being renovated, as a group of pretty good-looking guys rolling giant iron carts to the curb told me. Their accents were as thick as the iron too. I felt like I was in On the Waterfront. They couldda been contendas!

As it was, they approved of my photographing the building, wisely acknowledging its fame. I snapped away, wondering, what for?

Leonard Cohen! I know right?Ah, how good of the Chelsea, to provide historical-markeresque plaques for the rubes from the hinterlands. Reading along, I learned this was the famous hotel where writers would go to write, holed up in their New York-fueled frenzy, churning out Pulitzer Prize winning novels and one Great American Novel after another.

Welcome to the ChelseaGuess what? Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey while at the Chelsea and oh, who else stayed there? Just a few nobodies like Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, who wrote On the Road there.

Good stuff! Why then, the guilt? Oh, because I majored in LITERATURE for Pete’s sake! Literature of the English language! The literature written by people like Mark Twain, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Miller, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac. You’d think the name “Chelsea” might have penetrated my consciousness at some point. Not to mention all the musicians who flopped, dropped acid, or were murdered within its walls (Nancy, girlfriend of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Viscious was found murdered there.) I SAW SID AND NANCY!

Ah well, I’m an older, wiser, and more well-traveled woman of the world now. I may have to slap on the Spanx and hold my breath for 15 minutes to get into my jeans now —  but by golly, I’ve eaten octopus and rabbit in Brooklyn and consumed pizza and fried dough in Manhattan. And I’ve stood on the sidewalk before the buildings where John Lennon died (the Dakota) and Nancy Spungen expired (the Chelsea).

Maybe it’s not necessary to do any killing to look better naked. Hanging around  New York literary hotspots might just make me thin by association.

My home town

I’ve been thinking about the place I’m from for the last few days. Thanks to Facebook, I’ve made contact and chatted with people that, in a different world, I may have never spoken to again. Not out of animosity, but simply because I doubt our paths ever would have crossed.

I rarely go to Carrollton any more; since my mother moved away in the 1990s, I no longer have any family there and I have to, as I tell people, “mean to go.” That happened in 2003 when I thought my then-boyfriend might like to see where I’m from; yes, my husband and I had a very good time.

But every few years, I get together with a few members of our old “gang” — we actually did, and still do, refer to ourselves that way. We re-established contact with one another in 2001, just a few weeks before 9/11, and have managed to cobble together mini-reunions every couple years or so. That doesn’t count last summer, though, when the mother of one of my best friends died. Attending her funeral allowed us back in touch, but the occasion was far too sad to have much fun.

So Facebook calls Carrollton to mind. And 2011 — the 30th anniversary of my graduation from high school. Thir-tee years? A 20-year reunion — well, that just sounds like Yes, Time Has Passed. Thirty years sounds like grandparents and where’s my scooter and the bottle of Geritol.

Be that as it may, in the spring of 1981, I graduated along with 111 other souls from Carroll County High School. Then I went out into the world.

Sidewalks and alley-ways

In some ways, my childhood was idyllic, insular. My little world revolved around Ninth Street and my friends along those two blocks: Lisa and Greg; Laura and all her brothers and sisters; Chris, Luanne, Ginny; the Bunnings, the Hills. It was a neighborhood overrun with kids, and with widow ladies. We played in their backyards, we patrolled the alleys behind all our houses, sucking the nectar out of the blossoms on the honeysuckle bushes and collecting pebbles in the alleys’ crude roadbeds.

Along with those alleys, the sidewalks and the trees were our homes. We were always outside, drawing hopscotch or four-square blocks on the sidewalks or driveways. We climbed, until we were gooey with sap, to the top of the highest pine tree in the back yard at the corner of Tenth and Sycamore streets.

And if we weren’t climbing or inventing some game or another on the sidewalks, we were riding our bikes. Our bikes were freedom, fast-moving freedom, and I’ll never forget my blue flowered banana-seat bike. I rode it until I got my 10-speed for my 12th birthday — which widened my horizons to the edge of every city limit Carrollton had.

We lived in a small square house with red shutters and dormers upstairs. A single window unit air-conditioner cooled the entire downstairs; upstairs, box fans blew the hot air out during long sweltering summers. In the winter noisy, banging steam radiators heated the house. Oh, how warm they were. A bay window looked out over Seminary Street and the cemetery beyond. Mom always made us be quiet during funerals.

People had problems and there were tragedies, but like most children, I was insulated from the world of adults and their troubles. For me, life was school, friends, and St. John’s Catholic Church.

St. John’s had a school but it closed after my third-grade year. But I’ll never forget the boys in my class (for I was the only girl). I sang in the choir, and knew without realizing it that we had one of the most beautiful voices in the world in the person of our church organist, Nancy Jo Grobmeyer. The choir was filled with some of the sweetest ladies I have ever known — Janie and Helen, sisters; Jeannie, many others. Life at St. John’s was my life: going to the annual Halloween Party, potlucks without number, the mysterious Easter Vigil Mass, 40 Hours Devotion. They’re all tied together in the sweetness that was my childhood.

I know I’ll go back again — some time soon, the gang will get back together and we’ll watch as our children will make another leap in age, going off to college and to their own lives. Most likely I’ll go to the class of 1981’s 30th reunion — if my Facebook campaign to organize it is successful.

It’s often said that to know who you are, you have to know where you’re from. I know where I’m from — a small town in Kentucky, sitting at the confluence of two rivers. Sure, small-town life has its faults — and I know as I’m sitting here this morning, I’m glossing over the lows and difficulties faced by any kid growing up.

But you know, sitting here I also am quite proud of the place that helped form who I am. That close-knit community nurtured and cared for me, and I know any time I go there, there are folks who would welcome me, even after I’ve been 30 years gone.

I swing both ways

Travel along the twisting blue highways of Eastern Kentucky enough and you’re bound to see them: picturesque and practical, old-fashioned and mildly terrifying. They’re a sight that’s out of the ordinary enough to make a traveler pause and take a few photographs along the side of the road.

They’re known as swinging bridges, and most of them were built by the people who use them, out of necessity, to reach their homes. As you probably can guess, there isn’t a lot of flat land available in the mountains to build a house, or even to park a mobile home. And with flat land being in short supply, sometimes it winds up on the other side of the creek from the road.

And so they built them, these swinging bridges, out of wood and concrete, and sturdy-looking cable. Built them of their own design, in locations of their own choosing, and often with the help of neighbors.

The one appears along Highway 7, outside of Hazard, in the neighborhood of Cornettsville and Ulvah, along the road to Whitesburg.

It’s a little unusual, I think, in that it has a name.

I didn’t realize it last week, but I’d seen this bridge before; more than 10 years ago, in fact, when swinging bridges were the subject of a story in the second season of Kentucky Life, a long-running magazine program for which I was series writer (and sometime segment producer).

At the time the host was Byron Crawford, who spent his career roaming Kentucky’s back roads in search of stories just like this for the (Louisville) Courier-Journal. If you watch the clip, you’ll notice the boyish enthusiasm Byron exhibits for bouncing across the bridge, imagining what it might be like to be a child whose little world includes such a marvelous thing.

As we drank in the mountain beauty surrounding the bridge, snapping photos and recording a little video for a short segment and story we were working on that day, we were greeted by a resident of the small neighborhood which relied on the bridge daily to cross the creek.

Impervious to the sway and creak of the Ben Salley Bridge, the man made his brisk way across the creek, through the gate, and down to the roadside where I stood.

“That’s my bridge,” he said, pointing to the sign.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Salley,” said I.

I was a bit worried he was going to run us off but he mostly just wanted to know what we were up to, and to chat a bit. He told us he’d built that bridge, and he wished the county would put up a more permanent structure and right of way. He was a war veteran, World War II,  and thought he deserved it. I think he’s right.

He also told me that his wife had died of cancer, and they carried her for the last time across that bridge on a scooter much like the one he himself now used. He didn’t say if her final journey across the Ben Salley Bridge was before she departed this life, or after. Either case would have been difficult, I would think.

The late September sun was hot on the green water. Fall has only just begun to touch the mountains, but soon they’ll be ablaze with color — so much color that you’ll think you’re in another world, where the beauty just takes your breath away.

It is another world, Eastern Kentucky, where some of the things that city-dwellers take for granted, like Starbucks, are unknown, and other things, like swinging foot bridges, slow you down just long enough to pass the time of day with a war veteran or a new-found friend.